The other day, I happened across Robin Thicke’s new music video for his pop song “Blurred Lines,” which is currently at No. 1 on the Billboard chart for hip-hop music and pop music. Throughout the video, topless girls—seen dancing next to fully clothed men—sport nude underwear that matches the color of their skin, so that they appear fully naked.
Calling out misogyny in music is nothing new. Who can forget Tipper Gore's famous early-’90s Washington Post editorial “Hate, Rape, and Rap”? “In America, a woman is raped once every six minutes. A majority of children surveyed by a Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center thought rape was acceptable,” Gore wrote in the piece. “No one is saying this happens solely because of rap or rock music, but certainly kids are influenced by the glorification of violence.”
At the time, Gore got a lot of flack for her article. But it does feel like the music industry is somehow still blind to the wider girl-power, “Lean In” moment happening in American culture right now (Beyoncé being the notable exception). It’s one of the few places where calling a woman a bitch or a ho does not result in an angry backlash on Twitter, and where female rappers like Nicki Minaj can churn out a single titled “Stupid Hoe” with the lyrics “If you sexy eat my coo coo raw” and no one bats an eye.
Even prominent African-American women are loathe to take on the issue. For example, despite calls for Michelle Obama to get involved in speaking out against hip-hop’s war on women, the first lady has so far remained silent on the issue of misogynist songs. According to an 18-year-old senior at Inglewood High School in Inglewood, California, “They (the rappers) might listen to Ms. Obama.” However, they can’t listen to her when she’s not saying anything.
But hip-hop hasn’t always been so anti-women. In 1993, when Queen Latifah released her third album—which netted her a Grammy for her song “U.N.I.T.Y.”—she rapped: “Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho, trying to make a sister feel low, You know that’s got to go.” And she’s just one example of a female rap artist who stood up for women. In fact, according to Stanford’s April Gregory, “back in the 1970s, hip-hop emerged in the Bronx as a form of protest art and empowerment for communities of color”—including women of color.
So when did things change? Rap's relationship to women started to take a turn for the worse in the early ’90s with the likes of Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, and N.W.A. And although many men and women (of all colors) reacted negatively to the misogynist rap lyrics at the time, they were largely ignored. For example, although Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” was featured on the Soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and is supposedly the most famous feminist rap song out there, it’s barely remembered these days. On the contrary, we do recognize nearly all of the women-bashing lyrics from about the same era. For example, “Tipsy,” from 2004 and “Me So Horny” from 1989 are still among the most recognized songs out there.
Perhaps hip-hop has been so resistant to the wider message that women are not just sexual objects because most women also don’t really object to what rappers are saying about them. For instance, when Nelson George, a prominent hip-hop lecturer in the early 1990s went to Spelman College in Atlanta he was shocked to find that none of the women in the audience objected to any of the horrific things that 2 Live Crew was saying in their songs. ( Lyrics like: “To have her walking funny we try to abuse it / big stinking p---y can’t do it all / So we try real hard just to bust the walls.”)
And then, nearly two decades later, when Byron Hurt interviewed women on their views on misogyny in hip-hop for his documentary film Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, he was shocked to find that women still did not find the misogynist lyrics in hip-hop songs offensive in the least. Girls may be poised to run the world, as Bey sings, but it seems that both men and women alike are fine with letting them be denigrated by the music industry’s biggest stars.
Honestly, I don’t think that women take offense to the hip-hop lyrics in these songs because they feel that the lyrics aren’t directed at them personally. They think that the men in the songs are talking about people they know/knew and not them. But the reality is: they are addressing all women.